Are Fewer, Longer-Lived AAA Games Really A Bad Thing?

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News has been coming out that October 2016 was a bit of a disappointment for sales expectations of some blockbuster video games. One narrative trying to explain why suggests that the transition to games-as-a-service is giving some older games longer tails, cannibalizing new ones. If this is what’s happening (there are other explanations), I’m honestly not sure whether it’s a bad thing or a correction I’ve been waiting to see for years.

US retail and UK retail are reporting disappointing numbers for games like Dishonored 2Watch Dogs 2Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, or Titanfall 2, despite critics receiving those games quite positively. There could be a lot of explanations: particular things going on with each individual game (like Titanfall 2 coming out in-between Battlefield 1 and Infinite Warfare), or particular things going on in the UK retail market or the US retail market. A convenient one however has been that the push to present blockbuster games as services people play and pay into for longer periods of time is giving those people less time to play every new big game that comes out.

“Other factors which are changing the landscape include a drop in volume of triple-A games as publishers look to engage gamers over a longer period of time and monetize them in-game.” Gamesindustry.biz heard from a sales data specialist organization. It’s possible the people who would be buying these games are still busy playing Grand Theft Auto OnlineThe DivisionDestiny, or Final Fantasy XIV. These are all games designed to have new stuff added to them over the course of months or years.

This is a stark contrast to the older console gaming model where publishers pretty much expected you to drop what you were playing and move to the next game after a few months. The thing is, I was tired of that system a decade ago. Even during the era of the PS3 and Xbox 360 it seemed like publishers wanted every big shooter to have multiplayer and maintain a player base with DLC, but at the same time they expected players to drop those games after a little while and move on, thus annualized franchises or at least frequent sequels. It looked like a squeezed-down version of what’s happening today — games planned out as long-term commitments with season passes and expansion packs. This is actually starting to look more and more like what the PC market has been for a very long time.

Reports have recently shown that most of the most played PC games right now are games that came our a year ago or more. A lot of time and money is still going into League of LegendsDOTA 2Counter-Strike: Global OffensiveArk: Survival EvolvedHearthstone, or World of Tanks, with comparatively little going into 2016 games. PC gaming has pretty much always been about the longer tail, and it looks like games-as-a-service is bringing that environment to consoles. Ubisoft in response to Watch Dogs 2 sales even admitted short-term sales were becoming less important.

I never liked the console game industry’s hyper-focus on first-week sales, how games were considered failures if they didn’t explode out of the gate. It was self-defeating when they tried to sort of half-way make them into long-tail services while cutting them off at the knees with newer games and then wondering why so many games had dead multiplayer communities.  I’ve always preferred sticking with games I liked for longer periods of time.

Ironically I don’t really spend any time on these “service” games at all. Most of my gaming recently has been offline or at least singleplayer, so the kinds of games that are getting disappointing sales are actually my kind of thing. It’s not impossible for me to get into these online-oriented games though. If I was willing to pay for PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold I could see myself getting into Destiny. During the PS3 beta I immediately sensed one of my all-time favorite games — Phantasy Star Online, resting within Destiny. I have an uninstalled copy of The Division on my shelf waiting to be tried out, which I hear is similar. I try to keep up with Street Fighter V. Chances are though that after I finish the Gears of War 4 campaign I’ll get into horde mode, which in Gears 3 was my main game for a while.

In any case, I think the move to fewer blockbuster games that are supported for longer might be a better reflection of how mainstream consumers actually buy games. The console sector in my opinion has been a bit too focused on the hardcore consumer who buys everything week-one (or pre-orders everything). Publishers have paid less attention to the mass market that usually doesn’t care how old a game is when they shop for one. These are the people who keep buying the latest GTA game years after its original release.

Basically, I think we might be moving towards a more natural state in the video game industry. It just depends on whether smaller developers can fill the void that might appear in the area of story-focused singleplayer games. This is certainly what has happened on PC with games like Tyranny or Shadow Warrior 2. I feel like it might be a bit harder for that market to emerge on consoles though.

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